We’ve all been there. A presentation is running long, and the audience is visibly disengaged. Instead of pausing to re-connect with a lost room, the presenter instead furiously scrambles to get through each. and. every. slide. You may have even overheard someone mumble that the presenter “has no idea how to read a room.” But what does reading the room even mean anyway?

Defined, “reading the room” is the ability to understand the emotions and thoughts of other people in the room. Oftentimes, people confuse “reading the room” with “self-awareness,” which is how well you can read yourself and the way others view you, versus your ability to read others. While those two paths can awkwardly cross, we’ll hold self-awareness for another day.

Fact is, over the course of a career, everyone will at some point lead or be part of a meeting or presentation that doesn’t go particularly well – because we were too focused on our own agenda, to consider the needs of the room. Perhaps we tried too hard to make a client love an idea as much as we did, or we failed to pick up on the room’s cues of disagreement or sensitivities.

Does It Really Matter?

Notably, the ability to “read the room” is more than just a presentation or inter-personal talent, especially if you work with clients, manage teams, or lead organizations. While often underrated, it’s a critically-important communications skill that comes more naturally to some people and harder for others – good or bad, you know it when you see it.

Many successful and charismatic leaders work hard at being connected with their audience and as a result, do it really well. They can sense alignment and deftly adjust their approach to further stoke excitement for the idea; carefully pivot the conversation to mitigate a palpable resistance within the room; or purposely pause to assess and engage the room on what they are thinking.

Do I Need A “Third Antenna?”

Assuming we agree that “reading the room” is important, is it something anyone can learn or develop, or do you need to be born with a proverbial “third antenna?” The simple answer is yes, it can be developed, but you need to be willing to identify with, activate and nurture the all -important e-word toward others – empathy.

Some experts suggest that empathy is not an emotion, but rather a talent based on the ability to put yourself in the shoes of others to understand how they are feeling, and to adjust your approach as needed. Regardless of your own viewpoint, empathy represents the true definition of “reading the room” as it is the active ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Kelly Dencker Coyne PR presentation

Putting Empathy to Work

As you might guess, some people are not very empathetic (either by choice or personal disposition), while others can be overly empathetic – so much so that they worry too much about the feelings of others and it gets in the way of running a team or business. Below are a few simple ways to “read the room” regardless of your “talent” or ability to unlock your empathy for others.

Trade Places: Prior to any meeting or presentation, consider your agenda, audience, and their potential viewpoints (positive or negative) on what you’ll cover. Is there anything you want/need to address that could trigger a negative reaction from the group? Think through what they are, and how you might effectively facilitate the feedback.

Warm the Room: If there are new ideas or sensitive topics you want to raise with a group, take the time to brief individuals who may oppose your approach beforehand. Walk them through your thinking BUT listen to their perspective. Conversely, identify and brief your advocates to step up and support your thinking if needed.

Trust Your Eyes: While people may nod along and say the right things, reading body language is key – are they fiddling with their phone, daydreaming, consumed with what’s going on outside the room? If so, pause and re-engage the room with pointed questions – “Does this effectively address the challenge?” “Am I overlooking anything?”

Prepare Plan F(lexibility): We’ve all faced unexpected surprises – an in-person client messaging workshop becomes a last-minute conference call, or a key decision maker announces they will miss the first half of an important presentation. While it might be easy to stick to Plan A, it’s smarter to improvise and adapt to the needs of the room.

End of day, the art of “reading the room” is being able to tap into the emotions of your audience, while being flexible enough to adjust your approach in the moment, as needed. The good news is you don’t need to read minds, be born with a “third antenna,” or be exceptionally empathetic. Just know your audience, embrace feedback, and above all – nurture dialogue.